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What is real? What is true? What is the difference? Each artist has their own answers, but some choose to focus instead on the questions. Ahead of the release of 2nd Story Literary Director Megan Stielstra’s Everyone Remain Calm, she and longtime collaborator/co-conspirator/2nd Story regular Jeff Oaks sat down to talk about writing what is true, creating what is not, and what happens when experience and art are the same thing.
[A portion of this was originally published prior to the October 26, 2011 event at Morseland; here, we present their full conversation, including Jeff's ruminations on truth versus reality and the last place from which you'd expect a fiction teacher to draw inspiration.]
Jeff: I don’t see a difference, really. For me, it’s always been about where the story lies and how to find it, and I think that’s what we always talk about: where’s the story to tell? So in my fiction, I pick something that I want to work on, and go off in crazy directions.
Megan: I totally agree, and I think we get into questions like “What is truth? What is real? What is all of that?” and that conversation gets to the point sometimes where it makes me kind of tired. I just ask, “What is the best story possible?” I got into writing period from writing in a journal when I was younger in high school. So for me, everything started from real, actual experience. That’s the kind of writing I was doing every single day was writing that way. And then I think what happens is that really amazing, glorious conclusion that your own life is pretty boring when you’re in high school, and what is even the point? “So today I looked at him, but he didn’t look back at me. Then I went to softball practice.” That’s when the imagination starts to come into play a little, and I think that’s what happened with me: I was loving the physical act of writing but I wasn’t really that interested in my own life when I was younger. Because I hadn’t lived at all, you know?
What got more interesting were the dreams I was having at night. Or when I was starting to really get into reading fiction, I remember having this amazing, mind-boggling experience when I first read the story The Metamorphosis. I was on the way to work some college waitressing job that I didn’t like very much and thought, “Oh my god, Gregor Samsa doesn’t want to go to work, so he turns into a bug! I don’t want to go to work, so why not do the same?” And the idea that you can take a concept or a feeling and attach a concrete image to it was really interesting, so I really got excited about the aspects of magical realism, and to study that in the reading that I was doing. That’s really when I started studying fiction, and then around that time, when I was really fully engaged in fiction, I met Adam Belcoure and Amanda Delheimer and got involved in 2nd Story, so it was like “Boom! Let’s get back to your reality!” But by then, I’d done a lot of stupid things, so I had—
Jeff: [laughs conspiratorially] It’s funny you mention The Metamorphosis—
Megan: —things in my own life to write about. And you were there for most of the stupid things that I did. As a willing participant, or as the front-row seat. I’m sorry, you were about to talk about Kafka.
Jeff: I was just going to say, I think I did the same thing in high school: I thought life was so boring, so I would write versions of what I wanted to have happen. And I found my journal from when I was 14, and it’s funny how there are the imaginary things that could have happened—or should have happened. Because nothing was going on worth writing about.
Megan: What’s funny to me when I read back over my journals . . . I have so many journal entries about “him.”
Megan: “He did this to me. I feel this about him. I love him so much!” And I have no idea who I was talking about at any given time. I actually named Jeff, who was my friend during this time, but anybody who was primarily involved in eliciting these emotions that would cause me to go to my journal are never named or even described. There’s just this outpouring of that real adolescent kind of stuff.
Jeff: That’s what the story that we’re going to read at Morseland is about: [laughs] all the dumb things you did in your twenties.
Megan: You did some dumb things too!
Jeff: [sighs] Yeah.
Megan: What’s happening with the show at Morseland is that I have this book coming out and so much of the work that I do now is related back to the mission of 2nd Story, and how one story inspires another story which inspires another story. So for this show, I asked Bobby Biedrzycki and Jeff to each take a story from the book and write a 2nd Story story from it.
One of the stories in the book is called “Oscar & Veronica,” and it’s about Jeff and I in our early twenties, and when I told him about it—you know, we went out to celebrate it, and I was like “Okay, I have to tell you something: there’s this story in it that’s about you.” And that’s a tricky moment in a writer’s life. We’ll call it The Talk. The Talk usually means when you have to talk to somebody that you’re dating about whether or not you’re going to be exclusive, and I think for a writer, it’s “I wrote about you. Can I publish it?” Except I went in the opposite order: it was already coming out! The thing is, I knew he wouldn’t care because he is also a writer, and he has done this before.
Jeff: We’ve had to do The Talk with so many people!
Jeff: Parents . . .
Megan: Exactly. My favorite story Jeff tells is about how he was so scared to tell this guy that he had written about him, so he finally just gave the guy the story, and then the guy didn’t even—
Jeff: Didn’t even notice that it was about him.
Megan: No idea.
Jeff: Didn’t care.
Megan: You hadn’t disguised him at all! Usually you give the person black hair and make them from Nova Scotia. And change their name to Chuck.
Jeff: On the other side, my mom thinks she’s every mom in everything I write, so I have to say to her “This is not you. You are not that mom. This is fiction.” [laughs]
Megan: So I’m getting ready to tell Jeff this. And I wasn’t worried that he was going to tell me not to publish it, because then I’d have to say “No, it’s too late.” So I told him, and he said, “Oh. Well, I wrote that same story.” So he has a version of the same story, and we’re publishing them back-to-back right now, and then Nervous Breakdown is going to publish the two of them together.
Jeff: The other thing with the story we’re going to tell at Morseland is that it’s a hybrid of those two stories. Not thematically the same thing, but about that time in your early twenties—
Megan: It’s a 2nd Story off of that story, so it’s us, now, older, looking back on that moment, and the story that Jeff is doing in response, I am going to tell with him.
Jeff: About breakin’ hearts. [laughs] But that’s the thing I think is so amazing about working with so many people at 2nd Story that are in different crafts, and are as excited about doing the things that we do: constantly there’s this “You know what we could do with that?” That’s sort of how this whole thing came about. How can we make awesome stories and include killer musicians? We’re constantly brainstorming ways to continue the motion, and that’s why it’s amazing for us to be able to write fiction off of stories that were based in truth, and then tell stories based on those.
Megan: It gets very long and complicated in my brain sometimes. It’s like Inception: the story from the story from the story from the story. And especially with the one that Jeff and I are doing because it’s so intertwined. What Bobby [Biedrzycki] is doing for the Morseland show is a very different scenario because I’m not involved in it at all. It’s just very much . . . he took a story and thematically wrote his experience off of that same theme, whereas what Jeff and I are doing is more literal. I mean, we are the characters in the story. All this stuff gets really heady, and really meta.
Jeff: And the other important character is Wicker Park.
Megan: But Wicker Park in 1999, which I’m so in love with. Jeff lived next door to a place called The Fun Church.
Jeff: Sunday mornings there was rock n’ roll blowing out the windows. Rock n’ roll for Jesus.
Megan: We’d drink our coffee and have rock n’ roll for Jesus. It was great.
Megan: A friend of ours was one of the interior designers for the Real World house, so she was there a lot while they were filming it, and she was talking about how all the kids in the Real World house were just scared because the neighborhood was so bad for them to walk around in.
Megan: But by that point, the Starbucks had already moved in. When Jeff and I lived there and that Starbucks first moved in, every day for two weeks somebody bricked the windows. Because, [sarcastically] like, we were way too anarchist to have, like, a Starbucks in our neighborhood.
Jeff: Down with The Man!
Megan: And I say this as right now, I am drinking a Starbucks drink. From the Starbucks in Uptown.
Jeff: [laughing] We should throw a brick through their window. The thing is, I wasn’t really aware of my surroundings when I was younger, in that I didn’t write specifically for them; while I was in Wicker Park, I wasn’t aware of how much it influenced the place in my writing, and I think what really pushed me to be aware of how much of a Chicago writer I really am is in the things that we were writing for 2nd Story, you couldn’t mention a place without having to say to people “You know what that’s like” to really be able to connect with the audience in a way, like understanding that Logan Square is right now, or Uptown is right now, is very different than other time periods. Or in our story, explaining what Wicker Park was, and how it’s changed. I’ve got a story coming out in an anthology called Windy City Queer that is a bunch of instances collected—the story’s called “Itch”—and one of the notes from my editor was to “make it more Chicago,” and I went back and looked at it and realized that I assumed the place, but I didn’t really give it. I didn’t give the texture and the quality of the city. And that’s what so much of the writing needs to have. And so it was really fun to go back and Chicago-fy the story.
Megan: I’m gonna sidebar us out of the question for bit, but to talk about the story “Itch,” which is one of my favorite pieces of Jeff’s work. That story has had such a life. You originally wrote it because you were sitting in on a class—am I right about this? You were talking to my Fiction II class about the rewriting process. This was right after Jeff had sold his book Why I Fight to Simon & Schuster and they were taking him through this very, very long rewriting process. How long was the rewriting period?
Jeff: Three years. [laughs]
Megan: He was talking to my students about this, and in that same class I taught a story by Susan Minot called “Lust,” which is this quick series of instances of moments of desire that this one woman has. And then the following week, Jeff called me and he’s like, “I wrote a structural parody of ‘Lust’ and then I sold it.” He did it all in a week. We wrote it and sold it in a week. Shut up, jerk! That’s my idea! And then I read the story and it’s just awesome. Just stunningly beautiful. It follows that same kind of structure, but the experience is from the gay male perspective.
So then we took that story and we adapted it for 2nd Story—this was a thousand years ago. Do you remember this?
Jeff: Oh yeah.
Megan: And so we adapted the story with Jeff doing instances from the gay male perspective and me doing instances from the female perspective, and then Jeremy Zeman, who’s a performer in Chicago who we work with sometimes, doing the straight male perspective, and we all tied them in together, somehow, and performed it one night, and Dorothy Allison was in the crowd randomly, and there was this one section in the story where I was talking about—I don’t remember exactly, but anyway, that was the first time Dorothy Allison ever saw us, and she’s kind of a—it kills me to say this—she’s kind of a fan, and she talks about 2nd Story. Which makes me die, because she’s my favorite writer ever.
Jeff: She’s awesome.
Megan: And so that’s really exciting.
Jeff: She told me that she listens to our podcasts in her car when she’s driving with her son.
Megan: [gushing] Oh, my God, how amazing is that? How amazing is that? So anyway, so that happened, and then I ended up taking the structure of “Itch,” and then I did a story off of that story structure. So it’s kind of like my story—
Jeff: Which is in the book.
Megan: —which is in the book. It’s called “Times Are Tough All Over.” It’s moments of how people are dealing with the recession, but it’s the same structure as Jeff’s original story. So basically we just rip off everything from one another.
Jeff: Seriously. I think that what’s so amazing, not just about the community of 2nd Story but the people we get to be surrounded with in Chicago in general, is there isn’t a sense of competition in the writing community here. There’s a constant . . . it’s like jazz: there’s that riffing off of each other, and finding out about a contest and saying “You’ve got that story, you need to submit it for that,” and trying to get everybody else to climb higher. And the bar gets set higher for everybody, too.
Megan: What’s crazy is that the story that Bobby—the story of mine that Bobby wrote his story off of for this show—my story’s called “All So Goddamn Great.” When I was working on it, I was listening to Bobby’s story “The Girls” over and over again. There’s this moment in “The Girls” where . . . it’s this whole thing about growing up in Minnesota and these girls are kidnapped and going missing, and then there’s a deer that explodes through the window, and all this crazy stuff is happening, but there’s this moment right in the middle where Bobby starts talking about how we all have that moment as children when our lives expand and go beyond our house and our family and start encompassing the whole world. This was the moment for him. And it was done so amazingly well, right there, where I thought I was listening to this thing about kidnapped girls and deer but then all of a sudden it was about me and my life and my own experiences.
And when I was writing “All So Goddamn Great,” I wanted to do that same thing, so I listened to “The Girls” like five thousand times to try to figure out how he did it—and then to rip that off, essentially. So I did that and “All So Goddamn Great,” and when I sent Bobby my whole book for the show, I said “Pick a story.” And that’s the story he picked, and it was just hilarious to me that he went after the one that had been inspired by him to write something inspired by it.
Jeff: And now he’s gonna read it five thousand times to try and figure out your structures.
Megan: Exactly. And it’s just this whole back-and-forth, back-and-forth, which is really exciting. Honestly, I can fill up this little recording device with examples of very famous classical writers I’ve done that with, but also very specific to the 2nd Story form. One of our storytellers, Kimberlee Soo, did a lot of work [in] first-person, present tense from the point of view of herself as a child. She’s such an amazing actor that she could really encompass that age, and that self, within the performance. That’s something I try to play around with now via her work: what age was I when I experienced this? Can I do it present tense from that age? What did my voice sound like at that age? What kind of language did I use? What was the emotional tenor of my speech? It’s exciting.
Jeff: I think one of the biggest compliments I’ve ever received was when I did a rewriting session with one of Megan’s classes. One of the students did a parody of my parody of “Itch” and sent it to me, and I thought that was just amazing. It’s weird, because usually, your writing goes out in the world and you don’t know what it does. It’s interesting to be able to get that response back, and I think the biggest compliment is to inspire someone else to do something great.
Megan: That’s something that I am profoundly grateful for for 2nd Story—to be able to perform that work and have that immediate audience response. It can mean people coming up afterwards and saying things, but I’m talking more specifically in the moment, hearing the audience’s reaction, whether it’s laughter or just the tenor of the silence. You know when something’s working or not, and I’ve had moments where I’ve gotten down off the chair and been like “Huh, I gotta go back and look at that again because I did not just make it happen the way I wanted to.” And that feedback is so much stronger than some reviewer or critic saying “blahblahblahblahblah, you’re doing this, and then your aspect of symbolism,” that’s not what I want to know. I want to know if I got you or not. I want to know that.
Jeff: I never thought of this before, but I kind of feel like reading for 2nd Story gives you that same sense you get a classic Columbia College class, where we went to grad school. Because you have an immediate group of people who are responding to you in a class, and you get to read it out loud. And I also feel like, when you’re in class or at 2nd Story, one of the things you get is to be inspired by the other work that’s happening while you’re there. That was always the thing in class for me: when somebody rocked it out hard, I was like “I need to go home and do that! That’s what I’m going to go do!”
Often times, when I’ve gone to Megan’s classes to talk to the students, the thing we say over and over again is “If you wanna be a writer, get out there and be a part of the community.” Because there is such a vibrant community here right now that you can go to 20 readings, and you jump in on open mics, and people are there to support you. They want to see you succeed. They want to hear some great writing.
Megan: It seems like such an obvious principle, but I think it’s so important to just reiterate, and reiterate, and reiterate: if you want to be a part of something, whether it’s publishing a literary journal or being part of some kind of performance series, be aware of their work. Go to their shows. Get to know their audience. Same thing with the literary journals: if you want them to publish you, read their work. What do they publish?
Jeff: I used to submit to this magazine called Noon, out of Manhattan. I loved the description of it in Writer’s Market, and I would submit and get a rejection. Submit and get a rejection. And then I finally bought a copy of the magazine—and it’s microfiction, and I was sending in 20-page stories. [laughs] So it’s worth doing a little research.
Megan: Writers need to read, right? We need to do it to understand our craft. That’s everything Jeff and I were talking about before. I read “Itch,” and then I learn this about structure; I read Kafka and then I realize “Okay, I can do this.” But I think we—well, I can’t say “we.” I don’t know why all of you people reading this interview read. I don’t know why you’re reading this interview.
Megan: I read because hopefully I’d like to make myself a better human being on this planet. I want to educate about other people’s points of view. I want to escape where I’m at for a minute. I want to feel something that’s going to wake me up out of my day-to-day, I-forgot-to-buy-milk routine. And I’m really interested in supporting the literary community, and that needs to happen by me reading a lot of literary magazines and a lot of literary journals. If I’m gonna try to put my work into this place, I want to know what the place is, and what they stand for, and what they’re interested in.
It’s an interesting new challenge. There are two or three new literary journals I just found that I’ve been reading lately, and they don’t publish things that I would typically write, so I need to sit and say “Huh. How might I find myself within that?” And that’s a good challenge for me: to expand, or grow, or take a risk.
Jeff: But that is a challenge that you see in students over and over again: “I only write sci-fi about Pez.”
Megan: Can that be the title of this interview? “Writing. And Pez.”
Jeff: And limiting yourself to only one thing—”This is the only thing I do and I won’t sacrifice my craft”—whereas the people I’m really impressed with are constantly challenging themselves within the craft.
Megan: And just in the interest of full disclosure here, when Jeff says students do that, he also means we did that when we were 20. I remember saying “I only write in first-person,” and there I was, 20 years old and completely limiting myself from 95 percent of what you can do with our craft.
Jeff: I still cringe thinking about Fiction I, telling Gary [Johnson, now associate chair of Fiction Writing at Columbia College Chicago] that I wasn’t going to read A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man because it had nothing to teach me.
Megan: You are so lucky that the man did not whip out a two-by-four and hit you right over the head.
Jeff: I know. The nerve. Thank God he’s so zen. He’s whispering, “Okay, Jeff. Just keep reading.” That said, I am unable to complete my romance novel that my friend Claire and I have been trying to write since we were 17 years old, because we wanted to make a million dollars and not have to work. It’s called Thorns And Thunder.
Megan: [laughs] So wait, are you saying that you cannot go back to it because it is compelled by commerce? Or that you cannot go back to it because it is—
Jeff: She gave me a few romance novels. She’s like “Just read these, these are some of my favorites, and then we’ll do that.” And I choked on it.
Megan: Just recently, I’ve been really getting into some kinds of genre fiction. I’ve been learning a ton, and for me, I think in some way it’s connected back to television. The literary part of my persona feels like immediately after I talk about this, I’m going to need to talk a lot about Tolstoy to balance it out, but I just finished reading the Hunger Games trilogy. Loved it. Game Of Thrones right now? Loved it. I read three of the Sookie Stackhouse novels. Didn’t really love them at all, but oh my I love True Blood. Amazing, amazing, amazing television, and the fact that I’m actually saying this sentence aloud, “I think the television show is better than the book,” is not something that I ever thought that I would say. So I think that that’s really interesting, too. And for me, it comes back to the fact that maybe ten years ago I would have said “More than anything, I’m interested in literature.” Now I would say “More than anything, I’m interested in story.”
Megan: So is there anything I wouldn’t try? No. I want to tell good stories, so that means I’ll tell them aloud in a theater, or in a bar, or at a conference, or sitting here at this table, or I’ll write it in a short story, or in an essay, or in a novel. I don’t care. Call it whatever you want. John Edgar Wideman has this line: the reason why genre distinctions exist is so people who work in bookstores know where to shelve things. I just want a good story. So yeah, I’ll write a TV show. You want to hire me to write a TV show? Bring it.
I think for me what determines what I go to right now is time. I have three jobs and three-year-old, and I’m running around a lot so my time to slowly and deliciously experiment is a little less. Like right now, my writing time is “I’m going to sit down and finish this thing that’s grabbing me right now.” And right now I’m working on a novel so it’s that, and everything else feels secondary.
Jeff: One of the things I’ve noticed is that I pick things up for specific reason now. I go to something because I need to look at it for my writing, and when I try to read for relaxation . . . I just went on a quick vacation and brought The Devil In The White City. I thought “I’ll sit and relax with this wonderful book everyone loves,” and all I’m doing is seeing how I can pull from that to use in my new book.
Megan: I’m trying to have this be a mind over matter thing. I’m actively trying to think of it—bear with me here—that I am a Cylon, and I have a small lever in my brain that I can use to make very clear choices when I am reading something. So if the dial in my brain is set to 1, I’m reading something just for enjoyment and the other stuff is turned off. Dial set to 2, I’m reading it because I need to learn some aspect of this craft specifically. Dial 3, I’m reading it for literary criticism, and it’s very, very rare that I ever use Dial 3. Sometimes I’ll jump there if someone’s going to pay me a lot of money, but I’m really not interested in critique. I think it is a fascinating field, in the same way I think economics is a fascinating field, and I am not really interested in studying economics—unless it’s related to the fiction that I’m writing right now. So I’m having to read some things about the recession in order to really understand why my characters have to mail their keys back to the bank from their condo. But anyway, Dial 3 I’m not really on a lot. It’s usually Dial 1 or Dial 2, because I want to be able to enjoy it.
I’ve found that, for me right now, reading that stuff moves very, very quickly—I’ll come back to The Hunger Games—if I just want to read for enjoyment or relaxation, to read stuff that moves quickly is helpful. I think it also helps that I read it at night on my iPad while I’m putting my kid to sleep and I’m already really, really tired. So then I just sit down to rock in the chair in his room but end up staying there for an hour. And there are explosions! That’s why I love that series: so many explosions! I love explosions. But usually I’m on Dial 2. I’m really actively, right now, I’m only reading third-person because that’s the novel that I’m working on. And my default is first-person, I think because of 2nd Story, because I’ve been writing for 2nd Story for ten years.
Jeff: Funny we’re both writing novels in third-person now. That’s a challenge.
Megan: I started it.
Jeff: I totally copied you in third-person.
Megan: You’re ripping me off! No, I did it first of you and I.
Jeff: The thing that I tend to do with reading now is I am reading seven books at once. To read one thing feel like too much commitment. [laughs] But also, it’s about what’s influencing the work. So I think there is that awareness—that I want things to influence the writing.
Megan: My book is coming out digitally, so I’m working on this essay right now about digital publication and what that means to me. So I’ve been charting what books I buy and where from—to really figure out how I’m engaging with digital publication and traditional publication. What I’ve found is that in the past week, I bought five books. Two of them are super-big: I bought Jeffrey Eugenides’ new book, and Haruki Murakami’s new book—both of them on the iPad, because what I’m interested in from those books are the words in the story, and the iPad is faster and cheaper and easier. And I’m moving around a lot, so it’s easier to carry one thing as opposed to fifty. And also when I was a child I had a mild obsession with the character of Penny from Inspector Gadget, and she had a computer in a book! Awesome.
So those two I bought on the iPad. I bought two books from indie presses: Temple Of Air by Patty McNair and Ayiti by Roxane Gay. Those are both from smaller houses, so I bought those in book form directly from the publishing company. And it’s not like I thought about how I was doing this ahead of time; this is me reflecting on why I did what I did. So I bought those directly from the publishing company because I want to support the indie presses—I’m guessing that’s why I did that. And then I bought a book called Symphony City by Amy Martin, which is a picture book for kids, so I bought it for my son and I. That’s from McSweeney’s, and I bought that actual, physical book. I’ve started noticing that if the book is through an indie press I buy through the indie press; if it’s an art book, I buy the book; everything else, I’m buying digitally. It’s the words that I want. And I love Eugenides. Middlesex is one of my favorite books, and I’ve been waiting for this book for a long time, but I’ve just been waiting for Eugenides’ words.
So that’s become a distinction in my head. Or for work, if I need to buy A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man because my dog ate my copy of it, I’m going to buy it on the iPad now because I just need the words.
Jeff: Virtual library. It’s pretty amazing.
Megan: It’s similar, for me, to music. It’s much easier for me to have everything [taps on table] here, but I still have CDs that are from bands of friends of mine, or the smaller rock bands I followed around in my 20s, and I still have some stuff on vinyl because when you listen to Duke Ellington, or to Charles Mingus, to have that on vinyl is a different experience.
Jeff: I tend bar and last night, it was a woman’s birthday and a friend gave her a package and she said “You bought me hardback! That’s so great!” And I realized there was something special now about hardback: that you savor it. It’s such a treat. I certainly think that when I get one, because it’s not very often that I do.
Megan: With writing stories that are fully true, or at least mostly based in truth, versus something that is patently fictional, like the novel or whatever reactive short story, how much do you find that the processes are the same? And how much do you find your particular areas of concern are the same? For example, do you worry as much about, say, character development in each, or do you look at plot—how are your approaches to the two similar and how are they different?
Jeff: In the beginning I worried a lot about that, and I think we all thought about that as 2nd Story was gaining its stand and figuring itself out. But I think it goes back to what you were saying about good story. It doesn’t matter where the story’s gonna fall—in presentation for 2nd Story, or as an essay or whatever—it’s always about telling it well. I used to really worry about getting the facts exactly right. You know, “Was it on the north corner of that street or on the south corner?” But inevitably when I go to other people to fact-check those moments, everybody has a different version. I wrote a chapter in my novel that I took from my childhood about my father taking me fishing for the first time, and how much I hated fishing, and how it was a moment for him to sort of test me, and to see how far I was willing to go. Like with the story I gave to my friend, I was very nervous for my dad to read it—and he doesn’t see himself in it at all. But I’m telling my truth, you know? So I worry about telling the truth within good story. That’s where I go. But the process itself is still the same.
Megan: I have a story in the book about this girl . . the Incredible Hulk lives under her bed, and . . . [laughs] I’m gonna say this: that story is very autobiographical. It is true. And for me, what it’s about is how for a long time, the relationships that I had in my head felt more fulfilling than the relationships I was having in real life. And what does that mean? How do the fantasies that we have affect our real-life relationships? That can be a really awful thing to do to a relationship—to pin it up against a fantasy, because it can’t ever win, and what does that non-understanding that we have of reality mean? And I think it’s true for day-to-day life, how people pit their expectations of what things should be against the reality of a situation. And now I’m in a relationship where it just kicks the ass of any fantasy that I ever had. So first of all, lucky me. But I think those those are real and true questions, and I think back to the whole Kafka thing of giving a concrete image to a more abstract feeling or idea. That’s what I was trying to do there with The Incredible Hulk. So to me, that is very, very real. Did I ever actually engage The Incredible Hulk? No. The Incredible Hulk is not real. But the idea behind that story is very real.
I think that’s where a lot of the discussions we had with 2nd Story came from. We want to be able to craft the very best story possible. And also, 2nd Story stories tend to hit at about ten minutes, so we need to be very, very selective about the material that we’re choosing to put in there. That needs to be determined by the story that you’re telling, right? I have a story that I tell for 2nd Story about . . . dude, I don’t even remember what it’s about right now or which one it is, but the guts of it is that it really happened when I was in college overseas and I was living in Italy at the time. But in the story, I set it happening at college in Michigan, and I did that because if I had it in Italy I would have had to add all this stuff about the culture shock and, contextually, what was I doing over there? And language-wise, I couldn’t speak to anybody, and what would all of that have meant? And that’s not what that story is about. So I put it in Michigan so you could just say, “I was in Michigan” and move on. To be able to make that decision to be really focused on the story, with the specific time limit I had, I think was really an important one—but that means I need to have the allowance of using fictional techniques.
On the flip end of that, I think the value of 2nd Story, in that the stories need to be real, is incredibly important. There are a lot of different moments that can explain this, but I always think of Deb Lewis, who is one of my favorite writers in the city and just blows me away every time. She told a story at Story Week one year and it was so, so powerful. It was the first time I ever saw a standing ovation at 2nd Story. Three-hundred people jumping to their feet, and if someone had gone up—many women did—and approached her after it that her story had given them permission to either share their own or to start this dialogue—which I think is really important—if they had gone up to her and said “Wow, that really affected me” and Deb had said “It was fiction. I made it up,” I think that’s kind of a betrayal to a certain extent. So the operative word there for me is “real.”
Jeff: I did the first set where we started stories with band members to have music integrated into the story, and the story that I proposed telling took place in Spain. We couldn’t exactly have a Spanish band come along, and the reality was that I was at a party with opera singers and we couldn’t get opera singers in. So I did the same thing: I moved it to Chicago, because the story itself was the important part, and that everything that happened within it was true. It was just the logistics of it: to get it to be able to be told. Otherwise I think, for the medium, there has to be some allowance.
Megan: I think a universal truth is that there are multiple different perceptions of any single story. Chimamanda Adichie has this amazing TED lecture called “The Danger Of A Single Story,” and she talks about the fact that stereotypes aren’t untrue—they’re just incomplete. A stereotype is just one story, and there are hundreds of stories of a person, or an experience, or a place, or a culture, and we need to be consuming all of these stories to really understand the biggest picture. I mean, if you read my version of “Oscar & Veronica,” the story about Jeff and I when we were younger, it’s different than his version. You hear both of them and it’s starting to get a bigger picture was like when we were young.
Jeff: I would dare to say they’re almost nothing alike, in an odd way.
Megan: The same stuff happens.
Jeff: Yeah, but both of our truths vary the perception.
Megan: Well, I was not wanting you to be gay for much of the time and you were knowing that you were gay for much of the time, so you saying “I dare say they’re not alike” is . . . you can just say “They’re different.” [laughs]
Megan: But I think that’s something that’s really interesting to me, that reading as many different points of view as possible. They’re all true. A guy and his ex-girlfriend have very different stories about what went down. They’re both true, in some ways. They’re both true to each of them as individuals. And then your friends have to take sides and they believe whichever side they want to believe. And I know we’re laughing right now because we’re talking about a hypothetical guy and one of his ex-girlfriends, but I think that same principle applies to political misunderstanding, and international misunderstandings, and all that kind of thing. It has to do with people not listening to one another, and the fact that they have different stories of the same place and the same experience. How might things change if everybody just takes a second listening to one another’s stories? “Oh, you saw it happen that way.” I’m not saying that could necessarily head off wars, but it can be some kind of beginning. That’s why reading is important to me.
Jeff: It’s the same as listening. It’s amazing to have an audience at 2nd Story to sit and listen and take in that information and be able to carry it on, to tell their story to someone else. [And] ideally inspiring them needing to tell story. I think that’s pretty amazing. As soon as the story’s over and the spotlight goes out, the room bursts into conversation.
Megan: “Oh my God! My dad did something like that!” And then people start sharing. We talk all the time about what makes a good story, and I think we can talk about that in terms of craft, but I think for me the guts behind it is “How am I connecting with the audience? How can we see ourselves and one another in that moment?” And I think we see that all the time very directly with 2nd Story, but that’s one of my favorite things about books, and about literature, too. I’m thinking of Love In The Time Of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez. There’s this scene where Florentino Ariza is standing in the market and he Fermina Daza, the love of his life, and she had just stomped all over his heart, totally crushed him and totally destroyed him, and she’s standing there in the marketplace, pregnant with her new husband. And he sees them, and he looks at the new husband, and he starts thinking about ways to kill this man. When I first read that, I had recently been through a breakup myself and I had run into that guy and his new girl, and that’s such a universal emotion. And here I am, some American chick in Chicago in the year 2000, and I’m connecting and identifying with this guy in Colombia in the late 1800s. What a profound thing. It utterly blew my mind.
When we see ourselves in people from different time periods, and backgrounds, and cultures, and experiences, that’s when we start to want to know the bigger story behind them. What was going on in Colombia in that time? How did the cholera epidemic really affect these people? Because I see myself in him. A lot of this, for me, comes back to a teacher I had my first year of college. It was a history class and we were studying World War II. And of course, you know, we’re all these squtirelly 18-year-olds. She gave us an assignment to research what, had we been living in Germany in this time period, would happen to us, and then present it to the rest of the class. So here’s this Jewish kid having to explain to us what would have happened to him. And here’s this woman of color having to explain. And I did all this research and I found out about how Hilter’s SS were given blond-haired, blue-eyed women to impregnate, so Hitler could create his “master race.” I would’ve been put into a hotel room with a whole lot of army guys until I got knocked up, and I would’ve had to live in a hotel with other pregnant women, and someone would take my baby. That’s what I had to tell this room full of people and oh my God, to hear myself saying that out loud and put myself in that place at that time completely changed my understanding of history, period. To really stop and think that these are not statistics that we’re reading about. These people are not numbers. These are human beings, like we are. We all have the same feelings and emotions, and that’s what humanity is. When I was talking earlier about how reading literary journals helped me realize what it means to be human: that’s the kind of stuff I’m talking about.
I mentioned earlier the influence that True Blood has had on my writing process. But you watch that show and every character on that show, now in the current day, since they’re all vampires, they were alive—they’ve been alive for thousands of years, so you keep seeing them in these different moments of history. Like back when super tall cute blond Eric was a Viking, a Norse king or whatever, and now here’s this whole line of history but he’s still himself.
Jeff: But that’s the awesome thing about creating character, whether it’s fleshing out someone real or creating somebody, is taking the time to understand their full history and spending some time seeing it.
Megan: To roll this back right to where we started: who we were in our early 20s, in Wicker Park, is very different than these two people who we are now. But what happened to us then is part of what made who we are now. You look at these histories of your characters, and that helps you know who they are in the moment, and how they’re going to react in the moment.
Jeff: I don’t know that I could have written it back when we were, say, 25. Sometimes the stories take time to get to that distance where you really understand it. I’ve seen that before in 2nd Story, where people have tried to write stories that are too fresh, too immediate—the breakup happened two months ago and you want to write about it.
Megan: Or you just came out last week and you want to write about it. We saw that happen once, too.
Jeff: So I think they each command their own time.
Megan: I don’t know if it makes me unable to tell the story; it would just be a different story. I think of this relationship I was in when I was 22 that was not so great. If I tell that from the first-person me at age 22, it would be very [in high-pitched voice] “He didn’t mean to do it. He loves me. He was just drunk.”
Megan: But if I tell that same story from the narrative distance of me at 25, it would be “I will go to that clown’s house and I will burn it down. And he will be ASH BENEATH MY FEET!” If I tell it at 29, after I met my husband, it would be “I’ve earned this good man.” But if I tell that story from the point of view of now, when I have a three-year-old son and I’m trying to raise a man, that story would be about “How do I raise a man who’s not this?” So I think that the narrative distance changes each story.
Jeff: I want to write that story, actually. Telling the same point from ten different spots in your life, and each time it becomes different.
Megan: Let’s do it. But I can’t have it done until the end of November. End of November?
Jeff: Done. I’m writing it down.
Megan: That same concept—and this gets back to the Inception thing from earlier—hearing the same story told by the same person from four different ages, and seeing how it changes; you can take that same idea and get the same story from four different people who were there. Or, if you think about stories I’ve told: when I’ve told the same story over and over again—will you clean up the language in this so I’m not such a stumbling idiot?—and each time, it changes a little bit. I’m thinking of The Lord Of The Rings, and it happened in the movie and the book, where Gandalf fights the Balrog. They have this big fight, and the thing knocks him down and he’s gone and dead. You see that same story later in the book from Frodo’s vantage point in a nightmare, and you see more of the story. When you saw it before, you saw it from Gandalf’s point of view in the fight, but you see it the second time from Frodo’s point of view watching the fight. And then you get it a third time with Gandalf telling it story-within-a-story-style to the two little dudes and the big tree guy as they’re walking across—and then you get the whole story of what happened after he disappeared. You get more of it every time. And that is awesome.
Jeff: Could be a whole new 2nd Story style . . .
Megan: I wanted to do that. There was some night that a bunch of people were going to go to go out for some crazy night on the town, and I thought that would be a great 2nd Story night: you get the same night told from four different people. Remember how earlier I said that, because I was talking about so much True Blood and The Hunger Games, I would have to talk about Tolstoy? Here we go. There’s this scene where Vronsky is riding in the horse race. It starts with a gun goes off, and he’s riding on the horse and it’s really dangerous, and he thinks he’s gonna die. Then there’s a space break, and then the gun goes off and you see Vronsky do the horse race from the point of view of Anna, his lover, sitting in the crowd, and she’s scared because he might die. And then there’s a space break, and the gun goes off again and it’s Anna’s husband watching her watch her lover. You get these three different vantage points of the exact same scene. Awesome, awesome, awesome. That same thing gets done on Guiding Light.
Jeff: [silence, laughter]
Megan: When I was a student in a prose forms class, I did a how-to on how to de-bone a salmon, because my dad was a fisherman. And then six years later, I cut-and-pasted that directly into a story, except instead of de-boning a fish, she’s de-boning a guy. Taking out his ribs and such, and he falls over because there’s nothing to hold him up anymore. He’s her lover, but she puts all of his bones on a plate and gives them to her husband and says “Here baby, have a spine.” But verbatim cut and paste. I just changed the word “fish” to the word “him.”
Jeff: I think I’m going to use two or three 2nd Story stories in my next novel. They will become chapters—or portions thereof. Not straight from the original, because the moment in the book will have to influence the moment, so I’ll have to fictionalize it. But, for instance, my story about being with the band at a party. That’s going in for sure. And my piece from Story Week about the car accident in Spain. So yeah: pillage and steal. And take everything. You, Megan, taught me to keep everything and not throw anything away, because it may become useful.
Megan: In Everyone Remain Calm, there are five stories that were verbatim 2nd Story stories. No changes. They just stand alone. There were a couple questions that my editor had, but the main thing I tried to do was add in the sound design. How do you do that? There are some places where you can just say “And now The Steve Miller Band would start playing.” But in other places, you need to figure out how tonally the sound design changed the story. The one big thing they made me change was the use of the lyrics for “The Joker.” They made me change that to paraphrasing those lyrics, because it was not cheap to have the originals. So the scene read like, “And when he sang ____, I did this, and when he sang ____, I did this.” But I did take that out. Sad.
At Your Mother's Knee: Stories of Learning and Acceptance
May 11 - 12, 2014
Webster's Wine Bar
1480 W. Webster